About Alexander von Humboldt

On September 14th 1769, exactly 251 years ago, Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin, under the sign of a comet, as he proudly remarked. He became one of the most famous scholars and scientistsof his time on a world-wide scale and is celebrated today both in Europe and the Americas. In China, it is high time to discover a naturalist, writer and traveller who, crossing the Russian Empire, not only reached the Chinese border but worked a lot on China and published, in French, a fundamental three-volume work on Central Asia.

Alexander von Humboldt published more than a dozen monographs, a thirty-volume work on what today is Latin America, hundreds and hundreds of scientific articles. During his long life, he wrote about 50,000 letters and left thousands and thousands of manuscript pages that begin to be recently published and studied mainly on both sides of the Atlantic. Living in Prussia as well as in France, writing in German as well as in French, travelling through the American tropics as well as through great parts of Central Asia, he is certainly one of the most famous German scientists and scholars, philosophers and travellers.

His life can be easily divided into three periods of almost thirty years each. During his first period, from 1769 to 1799,he grew up in Berlin together with his elder brother Wilhelm, later a famous linguist and statesman, educated by the best private teachers available in Berlin. During his studies in Frankfurt on Oder, Goettingen, Hamburg and Freiberg (Saxonia), he specialized in many different disciplines from bottany and history up to chemistry and geology as well as philology and philosophy. He stopped his brilliant career as a young Prussian mining engineer immediately after the death of his mother. Rich of a considerable fortune, he decided to employ his money for further studies in different sciences and travels outside Europe. When he left Europe for the first time, he was already a very well-known scholar and scientist both in Germany and France.

The second period started in 1799 with his five-years travel through the Spanish colonies in the Americas, crossing regions that today are Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico, paying a short visit to the US at the end of his trip, including several meetings with President Thomas Jefferson. During the next twenty-five years, he decided to live in Paris and to publish his Opus Americanum in French and in France. During this period, he became not only the founder of such disciplines as plant geography or American Indigenous Cultural History, he created a specific transdisciplnary conception later called Humboldtian Science and a very specific, archipelagic writing later called Humboldtian Writing. At the end of this period, back in Berlin, he held his Cosmos lectures for a broad public, making science accessible to women as well.

His third and last period started in 1829 when the Russian Emperor invited him to travel through his Empire, adding to his knowledge of the American tropics now the analysis of non-tropical Central Asia. He published several writings on Asia including on Chinese matters and published as well his scientific bestseller Cosmos in a five-volume edition. He died on May 6th, 1859, almost ninety years old and highly celebrated world-wide.

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